Getting past the gloom

This is roughly what I said in a talk I gave at the Designers Accord London Town Hall meeting at the Design Council on 19th January 2012.

I don’t know about you but when I read, watch or listen to the news at the moment I get pretty depressed. The Today Programme seems to be a relentless torrent of unsettling events and terrible things that might happen. The newspapers are full of institutions failing and people to blame. Even Twitter and Facebook have become just links to more doom and gloom.

And it’s easy to find yourself feeling pretty small in relation to the complexity of the problems we face. If you don’t have any money, don’t have any position of political power or a large organisation you can boss around, it can seem like an impossible task to get us from here to where we want to be — a society where we’re all safe and able to live fulfilled lives.

It’s only when I think about what’s changed in the last ten to fifteen years that I feel more optimistic.Technology, mainly created by small startups, has changed the way that we consume information and products. Correspondingly it’s revolutionised the sectors where that’s been easiest to do — advertising, music, film and retail. The dinosaurs fight back occasionally — as has been the case with the companies almost getting SOPA to the point of being agreed. But overall, they’ve had their day. I think the day the internet ‘went dark’ yesterday was probably a turning point.

What I think is interesting is that the same types of technology are actually only just beginning to change the sectors that are the most important ones for social progress — sectors like healthcare, education, care for our elders, energy, food. The reason is that they’re tougher problems to solve but everything we’ve learned from the last decade of the internet can be put to good use.

What I think we’ve learned is that technology is a great tool to reorganise systems. It’s a tool for us to imagine, then prototype, then grow new ways of organising that change the way people behave and reach millions of people. Sometimes the technology itself is pretty obvious and simple — it’s just never been used like that before. As Clay Shirky says, “tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”

Over the last few years I’ve tried to work with teams to help them turn ideas into startups and I’ve done my best to learn from some of the best in the business in the US and Europe. I think what’s emerging is a pretty simple pattern that you can use to develop sustainable social innovations.

  • Find a need (and a customer)
  • Build something simple and measure its impact
  • Learn what works and what doesn’t
  • Do it again

There are then tricks to every one of those stages but it’s only when you’ve got it working that you should try to get bigger. If you get it right, scaling becomes easy because lots of people will want to help you, whether they are investors or customers or people who want to work for you, but there’s no point in forcing those things until you know you have something good.

I guess that’s really what we’ve been trying to do with Social Innovation Camp and now with Bethnal Green Ventures. We’re learning that you need real discipline to do it well — and at its best design thinking is just that. Creativity matched with honesty and perseverance. I think that over time if we’re all meticulous about the way that we try to create social innovation, the gloom that pervades our society might start to disappear.